Experiences of a Voluntary Chaplain in Primary Care

April 2, 2024

At ChurchWorks, we're encouraged by the difference that GP chaplains can make to the lives of ordinary people in our communities. We're excited by the prospect of many more people having access to listening services and spiritual support in their primary care.  What does GP chaplaincy look like? We're so thankful for Dr Louise Vaughan and Rev. Louise Cathrow from the Whole Person Health Trust for sharing their experiences with us.

A GP’s perspective…

To say that General Practice in 2024 is an intense and busy environment doesn’t start to give a sense of the context…Post pandemic inner-city London is on the edge. Everyone’s on the edge. My colleagues are definitely on the edge and that is primarily because the need is so huge and the suffering is very real.

Like Brenda, who lost her mum on Christmas Day. She had had a lifetime of trauma and chronic health conditions. What she needed was space to process her loss, someone to listen who wasn’t involved and was comfortable in talking about not just death, but making space to explore questions about why it happens; what happens next for her mum and for her.

Or the businessman who had always pushed himself to the limit. He’d always worked hard at his therapy and was making real changes in living sustainably but couldn’t find real worth and often felt a sense of not being good enough. Yes, he needed good mental health care; he also needed time and encouragement to think about his identity.

Or the woman who is finally got beyond early pregnancy but is terrified about another miscarriage; or the one whose husband has had an affair but wants to carry on as normal when everyone else knows.

It’s not just that we are not resourced to spend the time that these people need; despite spending long hours with them, it’s not enough. It is also that they need something that we are not trained to provide. Healthcare isn’t just about physical or mental healthcare; it’s also about social healthcare; the issues around relationships, money, work, creativity, housing etc. But the piece that so many people forget is the spiritual healthcare, what gives meaning and purpose to life. This is the “why” questions, the big life events like births, deaths, losses and so many issues that are very hard to address in psychological therapy because they pertain to the meaning we ascribe to life and the world. Primary care chaplains do not tell patients what should give their life meaning; just like social prescribers don’t tell patients who to be in relationships with. But primary care chaplains do enable patients to explore what that meaning might look like for them and to help them live full lives within this.

The Mission Practice has had a chaplain for 25 years and he has been closely involved in many patients lives from births to deaths and funerals. Since October we have also welcomed Louise Cathrow, who is a volunteer chaplain. We are so fortunate that she has given her time to us and is already working closely with patients and starting to connect to local churches where they are best placed to support spiritual and pastoral needs and provide the community that will hold and support in the longer term. She has been fully trained by the Association of Chaplaincy in General Practice and is able to bring that expertise to our team. She is already exploring unmet needs amongst our practice population, like support for parents of  children with neurodiversity.

We would love to see more professionals from local spiritual communities partner with us in this way. We want to see all our patients live life well because they are spiritually healthy and are supported to do this within their own neighbourhoods. We know that so much goes unsaid in our society which tends towards increasing isolation and individualism. We want to catalyse conversations that really matter about the big issues of life; in safe spaces; so that people can find relationships that are life giving, hope filled and can move towards fullness of life.

Dr Louise Vaughan

A Curates’ eye view of Healthcare Chaplaincy...

I met Dr Vaughan at a Pioneer’s meeting organised in the deanery and was there to share an existing pioneer project that I was working on. After the presentation we just happened to talk about Chaplaincy as both part of my training and as a possible route into ministry at the end of my curacy and she shared her vision of chaplaincy within a whole person health context embedded within local GP surgeries.

With the agreement of my incumbent who recognised the pioneering aspect to this unusual chaplaincy opportunity, with two days training from the Association of Chaplaincy in General Practice and to complete a longer chaplaincy required by my second- year training, I arrived at the Mission Practice as a volunteer chaplain for one day a week.

Since then, I have had the privilege of holding space and walking with people in the darkness of grief, as relationships breakdown, struggling with the emotional impact of deteriorating health or caring for family members with intense needs and feelings of hopelessness and isolation.

As the weeks pass it highlights both how worthwhile this provision has been in the lives of the community it seeks to serve but also how my own pastoral skills and convictions are being shaped and honed. I love my days here at the GP practice, I feel part of a team deeply committed to whole-person health where spiritual health is valued alongside, physical, emotional and mental health. I have often found myself invited into conversations around the big questions of life, God, purpose and faith by those who are trying to understand the circumstances they find themselves in. The conversations we have can bring tears or smiles, anger or laughter, sadness or silence; all are welcome and acknowledged, all seem part of the journey to whole person health.

Finally, as I reflect, I have treasured the simplicity and privilege it is to walk with others, to give uninterrupted time, to listen actively and to notice, with people the seeds of hope in their lives.

 Reverend Louise Cathrow

Whole Person Health Trust

“promoting whole person healthcare based on Christian foundations”

Registered charity number 1098671

Company number 04386014    wphtrust@gmail.com

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